TDJ: My Full Circle Odyssey
Pictured above, A Chef and her Chefs (from left to right)
Originally Published 9.12.2011 for Huffington Post
Last week I visited Bushi-Tei, where an ex-sous-chef of mine is at the stove’s helm cooking Japanese/French fusion food. While dining at Michael Hung’s new establishment, it brought back memories of my first chef job in San Francisco at the Miyako Hotel under the inspired madness of Elka Gilmore, who recruited me to be her chef de cuisine and open a Japanese-French fusion restaurant.
Elka’s restaurant proved to be wildly popular; the food was brilliant and had a very novel style, which critics from around the country loved. I am extremely proud of the food that we produced then, especially because it was the first time that I had been let loose to create rather than being one to produce, maintain and execute someone else’s vision. Elka and I collaborated very well together. She brought to the table knowledge of Japanese food, ingredients and recipes, and I brought a deep understanding of French technique and cooking. Our combination of talents worked and we produced some stellar food. But, after a mercurial year I left and went to seek my own style, name and restaurant, as she always knew I would do.
At Bushi-Tei, Michael created a tasting menu for me that was magnificent! It was funny though when at one point while enjoying the meal, I had a déjà vu moment where I was reminded of food that I had created 19 years ago right across the street at Elka’s place. The food of course was different, but there was something in the style familiar to me. I’ve always been a big fan of Michael’s cooking and enjoyed watching him develop his own style while working at Jardinière, where he created our Monday night dinner menu program and reached to ingredients and techniques from around the world to do so. Michael is blindingly talented and I was sorry to see him go, but am very proud of him and his current accomplishments.
Getting your feet wet under someone else’s tutelage is common in the restaurant world and so is leaving the comfort of someone else’s place to start your own endeavor. It’s a time when the talented young chefs go off to seek their own moment of glory, design, name and restaurant, while also finding their own style of cooking.
Just like me collaborating with Elka and learning from the master French chefs who taught me my craft, I have many protégés in the Bay Area and beyond. It may not be as extensive as the Chez Panisse family tree which was largely in the news this past week because of their 40th anniversary, but I do have my own little cache of ex-chefs, sous-chefs, cooks and pastry chefs who have gone on to establish their own reputations, create their own food and success. These names include: Richard Reddington, Chris Cosentino, Robbie Lewis, Douglas Keane, Deepak Kaul, Elizabeth Falkner, Paul Arenstam, Paul Lemieux, among others that have gone east or elsewhere. I helped George Morrone and Michael Mina to open Aqua in 1991 and I will join Michael in the kitchen in a couple of months to celebrate the restaurant’s 20th anniversary.
It’s always amazing to me to think that after 29 years in the business how many successful and talented people I have worked with over the years and how many have helped me to shape my career and me their careers. That’s what I love so much about the Bay Area food community, that we have been influenced or have influenced each other in so many ways and that we are all connected in our dedication to food and dining.
Traci Des Jardins